Estonia’s Love Affair with Ronald Reagan

Lee Edwards /

While members of Congress, former cabinet members, long-time aides and assorted VIPs were celebrating Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday at the Reagan Presidential Library in sun-baked Simi Valley, California, I was nearly 6,000 miles away in snow-bound Tallinn, Estonia, a small Baltic country bordering on the former Soviet Union.

As a Reagan biographer, I was invited by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Amb. Michael Polt of the U.S. Embassy to keynote a conference on President Reagan’s legacy and U.S.-Estonian relations, which couldn’t be much better in large part because of the memory of Ronald Reagan.

Estonians love our 40th president almost as much as any American because President Reagan was instrumental in gaining for the people of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania that most precious of all possessions—freedom.

It was the Reagan Doctrine that put the Soviet Union on the defensive and forced the Kremlin to abandon the arms race and end the Cold War at the bargaining table and not on the battlefield.

An essential part of the Reagan strategy was to support the captive nations behind the Iron Curtain—including the Baltic States–and their legitimate claims to freedom and independence.

Reagan was the first American president to proclaim Baltic Freedom Day Freedom, stating: “The United States has never … recognized the forcible [1940] incorporation of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union.”

Reagan was the first American president to hold a public White House ceremony marking Captive Nations Week. The president reassured all those behind the Iron and other communist curtains: “Your cause is not lost. You are not forgotten. Your quest for freedom lives on in your hearts and in our hearts.”

In his last Captive Nations message in July 1988, President Reagan said: “The American people, citizens of a land conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality under God for all, support the aspirations of the Baltic people to regain the freedom that was theirs and to chart their own course.”

The peoples of the captive nations were listening.

Etched in my mind are the events of 1989, starting in Poland and ending in Romania, that brought about the collapse of communism and the effective end of the Cold War.  Who can forget the pictures of ecstatic Germans dancing and singing and crying on top of the Berlin Wall?

What most Americans do not know is that two years earlier the Baltic people were holding public meetings demanding the disclosure of the secret protocols of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 that led to the invasion of Poland and the start of World War II.

When the communist authorities did not suppress the demonstrations, the people were inspired to act more boldly. In April 1988, a large crowd of Estonians gathered in the town square of Tallinn, waving long-banned national colors and symbols and singing patriotic songs.

The police moved in, but the crowd would not stop. They moved to a giant amphitheater on the outskirts of the city. There, tens of thousands of Estonians—300,000 in all, one-fourth of the entire population—gathered night after night to sing and celebrate and unite in a spirit of national patriotism. The artist Heinz Valk called it “The Singing Revolution.”

The following year, on August 23, 1989, the 50th anniversary of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, two million Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians—yes, two million–joined hands across the Baltic States, forming an unprecedented human chain as they demanded freedom for themselves and their fellow citizens. And they sang the whole day long.

It would be two more years before the Soviets would at last give up their decades-long grip on the Baltic States, but in the summer of 1991, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania once again joined the ranks of free nations.

In his autobiography, Reagan writes that democracy triumphed in the Cold War because it was a battle of ideas—“between one system that gave preeminence to the state and another that gave preeminence to the individual and freedom.”

But freedom and democracy also triumphed because of the eloquence of an American president and the brave hearts and strong voices of a people who refused to be silenced.